Rugby Union: Springboks have history on their minds

Tim Glover finds the tourists have much to play for this month
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FORGET THE Lions' heroics in the Republic last year. South Africa have. Had Nick Mallett been the coach instead of the hapless Carel du Plessis, it is doubtful if the Springboks would have lost a Test, let alone the series.

Since belatedly taking control, Mallett's Test record is played 13 won 13. Over the next four weekends his new model tourists play Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England. Should South Africa prevail, it would not only be the fastest Grand Slam imaginable but would create a world record. If they beat Wales at Wembley on Saturday, they will equal the South African Test record of 15 consecutive wins; if the others also fall, the Springboks will eclipse New Zealand's world record run of 17 international victories, which was set back in the 1960s.

There are 12,000 rugby coaches in South Africa and they picked Mallett. What is more, he is only 42. He is still learning. In the light of their recent performances it would be tempting to suggest that South Africa are using a mallet to crack a nut. Compared to the southern hemisphere's Tri- Nations which, of course, South Africa won with a clean sweep, this eight- match tour looks like a stroll in the park.

"I regard the Tri-Nations as the hardest competition in the world," Mallett said. "To survive against Australia and New Zealand, home and away within six weeks takes some doing. I didn't expect us to be unbeaten. We won two games by one point and we had a bit of luck. Our record looks good but we have still got a lot of work to do. Technically, I think we are behind Australia and New Zealand. Our defence has been brilliant but we need to improve our attacking options."

If the Springbok was a horse it would be top weight in the handicap. Two factors might impede their record run: their schedule this year and their itinerary over the next month. With pre-season training back in January, the Super 12 series starting in February, visits by Ireland, Wales and England in the summer, followed by the Tri-Nations, they are entering their 11th month of continuous rugby.

"It's taken its toll," Mallett said. "There's been no time to rest. It's not a question of fitness but of keeping players focused and sharp."

Nor is he overjoyed with the logistics of the tour which has all the permanency of a dirty weekend.

"It's very disruptive. We are being moved from pillar to post, constantly packing and unpacking." It looks as if England, provided they can field their strongest team, have the best chance of sending the tourists packing in the finale at Twickenham on 5 December.

First up are Wales (recently beaten 96-13 in Pretoria) and their new coach Graham Henry. "At the time I described them as the weakest international side I had ever seen," Mallett said.

"They looked more like a club side. I kept bringing on fresh young players, who had the incentive of playing for Tri-Nations places, and the game got faster and faster. I always feel sorry for a team outclassed and I felt bad for the reputation of a country that was the best in the world in the 1970s. But there will be no comparison this time.

"I have never met Graham Henry, but I have tremendous respect for him. He is used to success and I'm sure he'll put together a formidable squad. There's no way he's going to let his reputation be damaged."

If the tour is important to South Africa as a stepping stone to the defence of the World Cup next year, it presents the four home countries with an opportunity for retribution following some fearful hidings. This time no excuses about sunstroke or playing at altitude.

The trouble is Mallett, too, will be at home in Britain. The son of a headmaster, he was born in Hertfordshire, graduated from Cape Town University in English and History and was a postgraduate in Social Studies at Oxford University. A powerful No 8, he gained a Blue in 1979 helping Oxford to a 9-3 victory over Cambridge at Twickenham.

He played for Western Province and twice for South Africa, but it is as a coach that his cosmopolitan background may have the most significant influence on Springbok rugby. Fluent in French, Italian and Afrikaans, Mallett - he has three non-whites in his party - has coached in Italy, France and the less fashionable parts of Cape Town. "The perception that rugby in South Africa is played by guys from the high veld who do nothing but grunt is passe. These players want to mix, sell their country and sell rugby."

Between 18 and 38 Mallett spent 15 years overseas and it has given him a broader perspective of South Africa. During his travels he ran a bistro and a travel agency. That should make him a discerning tourist.